The met(r)amorphizing and transcultural dancing body
‘My dream is to present an unfathomable, gloriously complex being, elusive in style, indefinable in emotion, always changing’ (choreographer and dancer Pé Vermeersch).
The study of the ‘body image’ has already indicated the importance of movement and dance as a source of ‘depth’. Movement, dancing movement, movement as aesthetic creation, contains a kinaesthetic realization/perception/experience that is an important basis of a subtle and complex body image. Dance is a physical foundation that at the same time provides a psychically graspable framework in building a body image. When the dancer is able to reflect on her/his own dance work without losing creativity, it becomes even more apparent that her/his body image is a more malleable, ‘plastic’ and partly unconscious ‘mind-body’ or ‘imaginary landscape’ than it is a visual image.1 The dancer will then also be more inclined to speak of a ‘waking/watchful’ or a ‘primed/prepared’ body: a body and body consciousness that are less ‘asleep’ than that of other individuals, that is a changing construction in three or more dimensions, with shifting points of gravity, fed by kinaesthetic experience and unconscious kinaesthetic memories. A dance work, elaborated through many years, can create a refined ability to think/feel/know through movement (The protracted, slowly growing elaboration of collective folk dance performances warrants their complex and intense ‘charge’). Furthermore, the degree and the quality with which a child moves, create a particular type of body consciousness and body image.2
How an extremely versatile, plastically expressible, changing and yet not unstable experience and consciousness of the body can find expression, and how this expression can at the same time not stick at the level of ‘realism’ but can push through to the Sublime, can be felt in Pé Vermeersch’s most important dance work, Blondes have no soul (created during her time as an artist in residence in Kyoto). She regards this performance, moreover, as a plastic creation: ‘I am the creator of my body and of my voice, these are the materials with which I paint, with which I develop both subjectivity and objectivity. I put the dancer on the same level as the visual artist … Like an artist painting different self-portraits, some figurative, some abstract, I can represent everything in and with my body. I want to explore every possibility in myself. The white background of Blondes is the virginal, constant white of the canvas on which everything that the body allows becomes possible’ (Pé Vermeersch).
This is not about re-presentation or about evoking emotions; it is, rather, about an extreme sensibility that cannot be reduced to the purely sensory, and through which the ‘raw’ experiences and perceptions serve as the materia prima towards aesthetic transformation, ideally to the sublime. An image Pé presents: ‘I find myself in a rainforest, that interminable natural body without clear boundaries – the bird flying up out of it, is it not part of it? An extensive body without emotions, but full of perceptions and sensitivities … Without human suffering, but filled with movement, unexpected slippages, haziness, rhythm, … extremely sensitive, but unperturbed by emotions, full of unpredictable changes, that is how I want to dance, that is how I want to be in my body and in the world’ (PV).
Another image: ‘I am in a temple in Kyoto: a sea of gilt Buddhas, one after another, an ocean of arms, torsos, legs, in various postures, each different, but all with the same serene and joyful faces. Opposite them: images of gods, of mythical creatures, wearing expressions of extremely human passions: wrathful faces, flashes of sadness, of strong emotion …’ (PV).
The rainforest or the forest of Buddhas: an apparently motionless unity, an innerness almost ungraspable in its layeredness and complexity. Dance can be like the cloud of Buddhas, each individual and different but with a face enlightened by countless expressions of the same serenity. Blondes and the stream of drawings that go with it do not reproduce or evoke fleeting emotional surges. No feelings or ‘passions’ (litt. : ‘sufferings’) but an extreme sensitivity: the body in space/time but also space/time throughout the body.
Sensitivity, exquisitely attuned to and attuning the wisdom of the body; materiality, but not as the opposite of what is often called spirituality. It is only by separating both as individual essences that corporeality can be opposed to spirituality. At an extra-artistic level (yoga, martial arts) one can also assert ‘how physically anchored exercises can lead to a breakthrough that helps heal the rift in the fabric of the psychic balance, that provide a vehicle for the soul’s flight from here to the beyond. Perhaps we can say that ‘mind’ and body are mutual manifestations of one another, with sometimes the one, and sometimes the other, being foremost. Then the path to experience, to survey … the ground of our being would not lead away from matter in a one-sided privileging of the mind; on the contrary, that path would … consist in … doing justice to matter, in the renewed affirmation of the mysterious cohesion of mind and matter and confirming the mind in its highest flight. Spirituality could just as well be called materiality’.3 And also in affirming the body in its highest aesthetic flight, in a making present of the sublime. The experience of reality, saying yes to the total reality, is then perhaps a better term than spirituality, with its connotations of the purely immaterial. This attitude to life lies behind Pé Vermeersch’s work. ‘I (re)create my body and my voice. These are the material with which I paint, with which I develop both subjectivity and objectivity.’
During the germination of Blondes have no soul a series of figurative line drawings arose. Sometimes they evoke the image of a dancer, sometimes that of beings which do not clearly belong to one order or another. Dancers and beings (the distinction is not always clear) move. Their body can take on a range of shapes; it expands, contracts, metamorphizes continually. This multiformity is no game for the sake of form. The figures are rather the graphic deposit – very quick, often in a single line – of the psycho-corporeal energy of one instant of dance. These are not merely incorporations [imitations of a being], but the capturing of what might be called diagrams of the energy of the body.
Here, what dance is, is given visual shape from within, not by an artist who observes and represents a dancing body, but by a dancing body that also possesses the gift of visually ‘translating’ itself. The few Western artists who have approached the body in this way (Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Matta, Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon, etc.) – perhaps because they were not dancers and implicitly saw the body as non-dancing (rather than experience it) – developed only a few typical schemata of the body. In Dali there is the threatening-to-become-fluid (also very present in the experience of butoh master Tatsumi Hijikata), the being fragmented into slices,4 the shattering into geometric or stereometric sub-members. In Moore and Hepworth there are the shifting of points of gravity and the interior hollows. Bacon’s bodies threaten to tear apart and to blow away. A relatively stereotypical reshaping of the body can also be seen in much ‘ethnic’ art, in which only collectively bounded and normative body schemata have been given artistic stature.
The metamorphoses of the body in Pé Vermeersch’s visual work, created in the period 1999-2004, are aesthetically of a piece with Blondes have no soul: the same purification, silence, whiteness. The drawings are as narrativeless as Blondes. They summon momentary states of being. There is no overlap between them. Drawing, like dancing, can continue indefinitely as a state of being.5 Out of an experiential encounter with dance, an almost endless perspective of bodily plasticity arises. This takes place in a primary processual thought. Bodily plasticity, or the met(r)amorphizing capacity, is eminently expressed in Pé Vermeersch’s drawings. Neither in the dance nor in the process of drawing is there any premeditation, although neither can it be said that the movement/line is ‘automatic’ or arbitrary. Each movement requires an energetic principle that ‘feeds’ its nature and course. There is no conscious or cognitive act of will or effort, nor any bodily automatism. It is the ‘prepared’ body that can draw upon myriad experiences/perceptions/non-cognitive forms of knowledge, garnered through training, bodywork and performance. The dancer/performer who would not be limited to a single style or genre of dance, will carry a multiplicity of potential movements stored in the body. Kinaesthesia6 and proprioception are responsible for developing this potential.7Kinaesthesia here means awareness and sense of the movement of one’s own body and its parts, while proprioception is the sense of the position of the parts of the body relative to one another. It will be clear that the multilayered sensitivity of the individual guarantees a richer form of such perceptual systems. These last provide not only physical abilities: they also contribute to psychic development. It is a psychic ‘navigation process’ par excellence.8 When it comes to self-image, proprioception and kinaesthesia probably have a more fundamental effect than the exoreferential (outward-directed) perception such as sight.
To clarify the connection between the plastic [not: representational] dance and visual figures, we will here examine Pé Vermeersch’s concepts of dance and psycho-corporality. How does an affect-laden, meaningful aesthetics arise in, from, through the body?
In her dance work, Pé Vermeersch is generally classified as a ‘butoh dancer’. That is correct, but not in the meaning that the West usually gives to it. For Western observers and ‘connoisseurs’, butoh is a recent Asian (specifically Japanese) dance style. That is precisely not what the great butoh dancers intended: to create ‘a style’ that had to be followed. Their goal was, rather, to give an openness to corporeality, that strange alliance between mind and matter, that would make it possible to go through the ‘deeply layered’ body in full. Pé Vermeersch has explained her approach to this in an article that is an important reflection on dance.9
‘How to let the body be a medium, how to let the body be transparent’: ‘This body is not a body in which the superficial muscles are thought, but the bones, the organs, the skin, the bloodstream’; ‘always and again thinking and using the body differently from a bundle of hard muscles’.10 ‘This body, once found, should be capable to dance anything in any way’. And this body is no merely physical organism, but must interact with all mental (cognitive, imaginative, etc.) processes. The one is impossible without the other. All of this contributes to finding the deepest intensity. ‘Because the body is ‘weakly’ used, this intensity is never equal to a tension. The weakened body is moreover an extremely sensitive body, a body in which ever more memories are summoned and sensory boundaries are broken. Anything that expands the senses, is dance training’ (PV).
The body has to be given time to put this expansion into practice. ‘Only by really doing this (not merely seeing it conceptually) will one discover the deep wisdom of the body and abandon oneself to it’ (PV). Not as a goal in itself, but as a way. ‘Your senses feel and above all are aware of the experience. This double training is the true experience for a dancer, … the most important dance technique. If you cannot discover that, it does not matter how hard you train your body’ (butoh master Akira Kasai).
To this experience ‘objectivity’ has to be added. To be absorbed in the experience and the experience of the experience should not become a goal in itself. The dancer dances for others – just as the visual artist works for a community. ‘Herein lies the distinction between the dance of experience with therapeutic value, and the dance of experience with an artistic purpose, that is to say, a dance that is intended for public display.’ Pé Vermeersch agrees with butoh master Min Tanaka in indicating how many dancers take the inner floating in these experiences for the dance. ‘Perhaps they understand a number of things, but … not the spectator’s body.’
Uniting these dimensions leads to the dance’s ‘now moment’. ‘Your body must be prepared (not the dance) and with this body you must dare to take the risk of being totally present, with the spectator, in a shimmering vitality, in a condensation of reality, in the realisation that I am alive now but at the same time am already dying … Even in the smallest movement one can always find abandon, the greatest pleasure to let the dance be born’ (PV).
Pé’s solo performance Blondes does full justice to this approach. The dancer generates an endlessly varied stream of movements/forms/figures that are not a decorative game but that arise from a necessity, from a spark of what the artist calls ‘vertical energy’, like the dervishes of Konya who with outstretched right hand capture ‘divine’ energy and after use conduct it back to the earth with the left hand. The transmission to the viewer is under high tension. Pé’s drawings ‘grasp’ the myriad passing flashes and the performer’s experience of them. This is endlessly met(r)amorphic, so long as one follows the aforementioned ‘path’.11
The performance/dance/installation Blondes tells no story, shows no scenery, responds to none of the winning formulas of contemporary dance such as wildness, despair, blunt physicality, recognisable emotions, erotics, violence. The performer dances, without clothes, without music, in a sharp white (HMI) light. The soundtrack is minimal: a few seconds of noise,12 and a few wordless elegies sung by the dancer, improvising on a structure reminiscent of noh.
The extremely purified conditions (silence, nakedness, whiteness) make any easy solutions impossible. The nakedness is stripped of any eroticism or shame: it does not provoke, it does not arouse, but it creates a space of freedom and (not in itself but in Pé Vermeersch’s approach to it) opens a door to the sublime. This freedom requires of the dancer a general tightening of the transformative capabilities, a total mobilisation of the psycho-corporeal powers that could make the journey. From subterranean impulses to an aesthetics of the sublime. She wordlessly asks the spectators to set aside the instruments with which they generally look at a work of art. The spectators are called to open themself to an epiphany: the coming of the sublime. This shows itself on the boundary of the almost-unbearable. For many spectators, and especially for the artistic in-crowd, the sometimes long-lasting/sustained ascent to the sublime-in/with/through-nakedness can be excruciatingly intense.
Blondes have no soul is a demanding work. No shadows, no mystification, no mannerisms that can provide a means of escape. Nor is there any kind of ‘story’ to which the dancer can attach herself. There is no eroticism that might serve the dancer as a mechanism of power. There is no reflection of any recognisable emotion that could lead the dance. There is, therefore, no sort of comfort zone available, so that the dance always takes place on a knife’s edge. There is no comfort zone for the spectator either, and it is this that makes it such a difficult work for a contemporary Western audience. It does not indulge the desire to consume an aesthetic work effortlessly, with nothing at stake for the viewer.
Contemporary dance so often strives to give shape to emotion (or often commotion) but this is not the aim of Blondes. The dancer has already gone through the emotional tangle and left it behind her; if it is present in the work, it is as ‘preparation’, as humus, as prima materia that had to be styled. The styling is not in the field of the ‘beautiful’. It does not follow the canon – not even the modernist – and is neither a sampler of assimilated traditions. The intensity does not lead to the postponable climax of so many Western productions, but serves the total presence here and now, the achievement of the moment that is so essential to the Zen attitude to life.
The spectator is offered neither the cult of control of form – however much it might still be present – nor the ‘going along’ with emotions as a holdfast. This is why Blondes fundamentally challenges the spectator. Technique (body control) is intensely present, but is not the measure of appreciation. The ‘rainforest’ of feelings and perceptions has been there, but communicating it is not the goal of the performance.
Blondes is the transmission of an aesthetic concentrate: of the long road between the Gordian knot of the ‘rainforest’ and the clarity of lace. This transmission takes place in a single stream of points of compression that do not serve a narrative climax but are given as luminous openings. This is also why the artist allows spectators to determine their own ‘dose’, in the longer ‘installation version’ leaving the audience free to come and go at will.
The long and eventful route from raw emotion to the serenity of the sublime is conveyed to spectators in a single unmediated movement. This is more confronting than it would be to assail them with the violence, despair, confusion or provocative eroticism so frequent in contemporary performing arts. There the spectator has the comfort of being able to go along with re-presented or imagined sensations that are already familiar. That is an easily achieved liberation in the first instance – the stylised and aesthetic (and thus indirect, not through one’s own body) experience of what is already known. [This apparently instant liberation is also provided by crooners, by the repetition of classical arias, but also by the constant re-exhibiting of those contemporary artists that have become crowd-pulling icons.]
Blondes aims for more: providing the committed spectator with a ‘place of freedom’ to go further, beyond the drive-bound re-performance and re-confirmation of the already experienced.
Blondes allows that to appear which lies beyond the emotionality and ‘personality’ so absolutized in the contemporary experience.
Blondes fundamentally operates through paradox:13 an endless layeredness in form and transmission together with an extreme aesthetic simplicity, a flexibly sensitive agility together with a spiritual radicalness, a tangible, concrete materiality together with thorough abstraction.
Blondes is radical, a concept that the artist defines as ‘developing and extending a simple proposition to its furthest point’, but that paradoxically also references rootedness in the ‘tangle of the rainforest’.
Blondes is abstract: devoid of language and story, of representation or figuration.
Blondes is an absolutely solo work: free of any external aids and, much more significantly, of any internal or external comfort zones.
Blondes is total here-and-now presence, with an intensity of mind/body in its dense layeredness like an antenna for vertical energy. When the dancing body unites the ultimate degree of receptivity to these energies with a body ‘primed’ in technique, the movement will be able to approach the sublime.
‘Every human being lives between heaven and earth. It is the purpose of dance to cast a bridge between these worlds and offer it to the spectators, in the humblest way, clearing oneself out of the process. I do not know just what I am offering the viewer, this depends on each one of them, I only know that I am giving, and the stronger my sensation is, the more I can give. I want to make the invisible present, otherwise the dance has no meaning … My concern is to touch what gives the most power and meaning to the human state’ (PV). The artistic act is a verdichtung (in the double sense of poiesis and compression)of life.
The line drawings that were produced at the same time as Blondes arose have already been touched on. These drawings are perhaps difficult to appreciate in a Western artistic milieu: they are ‘bare’, reduced to the essence of what the artist wishes to convey. They are closer to Zen calligraphy or the brushwork of Asian tradition; they do not seek the easy formal aesthetic of representation, but to capture an essential energy that is fleeting and intense: the intensity of full presence, also typical of the spirit of butoh. The beauty lies in this almost impossible grasping of the intangible, as irrecoverable as a once traced dance move is ephemeral.
Pé Vermeersch’s graphic work is unique: a dancer (with a career that is itself unique) who can descend or sink into the layered body to bring forth affect-laden form and meaning from these zones; who can, as it were, make the body transparent; a dancer who works not only with the depths of the body but also with the contours and the surrounding space; who from a pronounced lucidity is able to fix visually the rapid slippages of the energetics of the body. This is an experienced body, a tactile aura that is never a realistically tangible image, but a partially extrasensory perception. Kinaesthetic awareness, working to the full in a ‘primed body’, plays a part. It possesses a number of possibilities.14 First of all there is kinaesthetic ‘definition’, directed to the precision and correctness of movement, gesture, stance in all parts of the body. (PV speaks of ‘unconscious sharpness’). Then there is the kinaesthetic ‘gift of discernment’, directed towards determining speed, strength, reach. Thirdly, there is the fundamental kinaesthetic relationality: the capacity to respond to this or that stimulus, rather than another. Fourthly, ‘kinaesthetic memory’ should be mentioned: the innumerable memory of possibilities stored in the body. And finally, kinaesthetic localization: the sensibility extended to as many parts of the body as possible.
Recently, Vermeersch has also approached these energetics pictorially. These paintings arise through various moments, waiting for something uncertain and unpredictable. As in her dancing, she shuns anything with a whiff of pathos: the colours are very austere. Also as in her dancing, the paintings conjure a multiplicitous energy derived from the layeredness of underlying tissues; the white or the black are here not the non-colours of death, but the sum of the prismatic, of the colours of the manifold layers of the deep organism. A number of these works are analogous to the drawings: light, white (and sometimes slightly pink), ethereal, but at the same time sharp, subtle, glowing. Other paintings are just as dreamlike but not exclusively directed to the human body or essential body: they reveal energetic structures, only one of which is the body. In this sense they are more complex; the essential body interacts with bodies that are not bodies and with energies of unknown nature and source, felt through an extreme sensitivity. We have no names for these.
‘My eye becomes my ear, my ear becomes my nose, my nose my mouth.
My mind is integrated and my body dissolves.
My bone and my flesh melt away. …
I am blowing away, east and west …
I cannot even make out
whether the wind is riding on me
or I am riding on the wind’. (Lieh Tzu)
Peculiar to Blondes is the transformative potential of the form-shaping dancing body with regard to the spectator. This power to interchanging-processing-that-shapes is an aesthetic sublimation of processes beyond the artistic that can be called rêverie maternelle, the capacity of the mother to ‘guess’ or intuitively know the needs or the cause of distress felt by an infant; these indefinable/unthinkable elements are captured by the maternal rêverie, transformed, and returned in a purified, detoxified form, so that the child can assimilate them without harm and to its benefit. This purifying return allows the child to some extent to divest itself of ‘bad’, unmanageable sensations and proto-thoughts, and to enrich itself with an adapted and healthy version of them. Through many repetitions this equips the child with a gradually augmented toolbox for ‘ coping’ with existence.
Art, in its transformative and sublime dimensions, possesses an analogous function. It is, in the words of Bracha Ettinger, both patient and doctor at the same time: it grows in the soil of unutterable, compulsive, perhaps traumatic elements of experience; it processes the original rawness and indigestibility into aesthetic experiences. Thus is an ‘intractable’ sensation reworked into a viable and even healing process. Blondes fully attains this rêverie in the aesthetic dimension. The dancer herself has gone through many forms of emotionality. She does not reflect these in aestheticized form, but renders them, detoxified. Their sublimely purified aesthetic status means that they are not freely available to be assimilated by the spectator. The dancer’s purifying return demands as much of a surrender on the part of the viewer.
In contemporary cultural circles this is a thorny issue: art is, almost unconsciously, seen as a consumer product that one should ‘know’, ‘have seen’, ‘get’, and among more traditional appreciators ‘like’. Knowledge about it contributes to the distinction gain of the ‘connoisseur’. Abandoning oneself to the work that requires this abandon of us is very hard, and the feeling that this commitment is justified often elicits resentment or discomfort. This is invertedly reminiscent of the rêverie mentioned above. There the mother ensures that the child can develop a ‘space’ in which its own paradoxes can be accommodated. This psychic space is a processual space. The surrender of the child to the mother makes it open to this. In other words, the mother for a certain time ensures that the child’s illusions are protected, until the child can let them go – analogously to the operations of psychoanalysis, and to the transformative power of the aesthetic sublime. This is the difference with the non-aesthetic rêverie: the adult viewer has many more resistances keeping her ‘at bay’ – did Proust not write of the great efforts made by certain ill individuals to maintain the element making them sick under the appearance of seeking healing? The maternal reverie meets fewer mechanisms of resistance in a baby than does the aesthetic reverie with adults. This is also an important reason for much of the resistance to Pé’s dance work: it engages a deep commitment that requires a co-response, a co-emerging commitment from the spectator – making them participant – and that can have a healing effect. But abandonment and participation, a self-evident and shared responsibility in the aesthetic events of archaic cultures, is by no means expected in the contemporary art circuit. This again puts Pé’s art at odds with the contemporary aesthetic drive to consume without taking co-responsibility.
Art is a paradox of leaving and returning to oneself through an elliptical circumambulation. The aesthetic impulse – a compulsive urge – arises in the matrixial psychic borderzones; furthermore there is the input of ‘vertical energy’: the union that the artist enters into with a power/inspiration ‘from elsewhere’ (cf. Chapter IV). Some believers might explain this as a divine inspiration, others as a projection of a human energy, others again as a thus-far unidentified force.
In current Western art discourse it is improper to mention the necessity of an ‘opening’, of a spiritual contribution in human creative work. It would be dismissed as some sort of New Age haziness; people prefer to shut themselves off from dimensions that cannot be logically demonstrated – but can be felt through human experiences. Artists, mystics, poets of the most disparate periods and cultures have felt and used this ‘vertical energy’ – or whatever one wants to call it – or even described it, as in the texts of a Jalaleddin Rumi or a Margaret Porete. This spiritual dimension is essential to Pé Vermeersch’s work.
One reason that Pé Vermeersch’s work is often dismissed as ‘hermetic’ or ‘inaccessible’ is that it adopts neither a rational/conceptual, nor an emotional programme (the two sides of the contemporary phallocentric paradigm in art). Neither the conceptualists nor the emotionalists can ‘recognise’ themselves in her creations. The former will accept the profundity of a work of art only if it is preceded or doubled by a ‘concept’, the latter needs to reduce the infinite multiplicity of sensibilities to standard emotions. Their aesthetic instruments will not ‘work’; certainly not on Blondes or other work by Pé. This indicates how far beyond our unexpressed patterns of expectation her aesthetic paradigm has developed. This is an art that provides scope for the wisdom of the ensouled body in its own time and its inseparable unity of the material and the immaterial.
The art of Pé Vermeersch testifies to a post-post-postmodern, transculturally informed energetics of the body. The choreography Blondes have no soul is an epochal moment, a classic of the 21st century, just as certain of Nijinsky’s creations were ground-breaking at the beginning of the previous century. Some observers have rightly felt that Blondes have no soul installs a hallowing space-time, a sacredness outside any religious dogma.
‘The old Ferretería next to the Galán Theatre [in Santiago de Compostela] was the space chosen by the Belgian Petra Vermeersch to propose to us her marvellous performance Blondes have no soul, presented as if it were an exposition.
Here, on a white dance floor in a ramshackled warehouse, she danced in a grand manner and, seemingly improvising, non-stop during two hours. The nakedness, the full light, the strength radiating from her harmonious expression, the use of different forms of body language, the subtelty of her movements being woven into a hypnotising continuum, [all this] brought about intangible and elusive sensations and created a never ending and vast state of susceptibility. A heartwarming experience…’15
2. ‘A child has entered on its bicycle, with his mother, in the tremendous empty nave of the Ferretería C.V.Otero. From time to time it glances at Pé Vermeersch, who is unfolding on a white dance floor her dance and her chants, with her tight body and bird’s profile, for two evenings and during two full uninterrupted hours, in this very uncommon performance ‘Dance for visitors’ forming part of this edition [of the ‘Em pé de pedra’ festival]. The spectators come and go at will. The construction’s skylights and two strong spotlights create a wide space of pure white light and changing shadows, as the evening falls and the dancer traces her figures, alternating moments of rest with minimal gestures and movements, shapes of a mastered, ritual dance. ‘And why she cannot fly ?’ the child asks, and later, as an explanation of a short sound : ‘a storm !’. After a few minutes the child whispers to his mother : ‘she does not wear any clothes..’. Her beautiful pink body is resting on the whiteness, from the ground it raises a deepsounding psalm’.16
3.‘White does not exist, except as an amalgam of all the prism’s colours. In the same way the Belgian artist [Pé Vermeersch] is fusing all styles, tendencies she ever learned, to let them diffuse in a universe of snow and moonlight, only contrasted by the whiteness of her skin and by her silhouette. Because Pé Vermeersch presents herself naked, alone, deprived from all artifice or eroticism, inviting the spectator to a simple contemplation of her body as a moving object, and this she does utterly consequent.
The dancer transmits to the audience the honesty and courage of her enterprise which is being realized as an extreme research of the physical limits. She explores the space in every millimetre, being very conscious of herself, and constructing and deconstructing a choreography that reminds movements of animals and insects, the soundscore being composed by herself with the rhythm of her breathing, the sound of her body and of her own voice, when she raises a chant reminding psalms or prayers.
Her presence on the stage is conceived either as an installation of an art work (where the public can decide by itself its position and time), or, like in Cádiz, as a more traditional stagework.
In the first possibility her work probably functions in a perfect way : in a tangential parallel, her work matches the conceptual parameters of contemporary art with its mobiles or moving sculptures. Her delight in the body’s virtuosity is enriched by the results of her research and by that very soul, soul of which blondes are –-according to the performance’s title– deprived.’ 17
4.‘In the entrance hall of the Centro Andaluz de Teatro, one could admire, this sunday, someone who was a big discovery for the connoisseurs : the Belgian Pé Vermeersch with her installation/performance Blondes have no soul.
On a white lineoleum, descending from above like one single huge wave and finding a standstill at the feet of the spectators, Pé is dancing during two hours –-the public can stay as long as they decide by themselves-– naked and unprotected, without one corner, nor moment to hide for the conscious eye of the spectator. Like a living cell the dancer pulsates, reacts to stimuli we can not perceive, seeks every moment for the most precarious balance and contradiction of powers threatening to disperse her light body : like this she creates a dance, free and independent, taking for beacon sometimes a deep chanting welling up from her bowels and contrasting with her delicate lightness or, sometimes, with a few shreds of sound or music. Patiently, many were waiting outside the gateway for them to leave the space, to take their place and to admire her art.’18
5.‘This is a very innovative project, very daring and radical, as the artist defines her own work. ‘It will not leave anyone unaffected’ (Antonio Castillo)’.19
6.‘At dinnertime the news serves us the violence of the world, but the images do not touch us anymore. We have been vaccinated. We are the result of different submissions. The world is a place of uncertainty, where also the forces of nature are rebelling. But in a few minutes, a paradise can become hell. Entangled in enforced conflict we live in a never ending state of restlessness. Art devotes itself to this restless human creature. With different codes though, but that is its task. It is remarkable that very often the spectator finds exactly this more difficult than to accept the portions of horror brought to us by the media.
The past year, the Belgian Pé Vermeersch showed on different locations in Spain her work Blondes have no soul. Also the public of Valladollid had … the chance to witness her creation. Let us hope it will not be the last time. Let us hope that performances like this one will give back to spaces like this [=the Patio Herreriano of Valladolid] the tension they once possessed and they should regain …
Pé Vermeersch does not chose for big breakpoints. Her aim is somewhere else.
From a space she entitles as a ‘reflection space’ she makes us perceive this human being, entering in conflict to itself, to the others, in a hostile environment. And this she achieves with the tension of the nudity.
The bodily nudity. Totally alone and totally naked she moves in a white space, demarcated in the whitewalled hollow space. A white adhesive tape carefully marks off the conventional ‘stage’ from the void.
No support other than the self. No liberating music that could make this tension more bearable. No sound except for her breath, for her body hitting the dance floor, for the light slap of the coming down, for a kind of wailing chant or psalm she breaks into at a few moments … Some deafening sound flashes of a few seconds at the most, cleaving like a knife the performance’s athmosphere, round out the soundscape.
Departing from an austere and abstract aesthetics and from a realistic content Vermeersch creates a work with the beauty of the terribly human. And with its force.
One hour of wonderful and collected beauty’.20
7.‘Blondes have no soul was put on the stage of L’Avant-Seine, Théâtre de Colombes, Paris, on the 22th of november 2011. It is a complete solo performance, choreographed and interpreted by Pé Vermeersch …
It is a fetching creation in which body and spirit are one, wherein the body is spirit, wherein it is the spirit. Since 2001 this piece has repeatedly been brought on stage in Belgium, Japan, France and Spain. Its length is of one or two hours. Floating in a universe of her own, [Pé] vivifies her own purified aesthetics. In full presence [Pé] evokes the spiritual, the absolute, the supernatural ; unlimitedly she shares her approach of the sacred [with the public].
In dazzling licht : a woman’s body with golden reflections against a white ground ; no music –that would be too much— but sinking silences tore apart by surprising fulgurations ; and, above all, silence, sometimes the [performer’s] voice. The artist’s melodic intonations lead to plenitude, to unity, to the body’s simplicity. ‘To make appear the invisible …’
Nudity is not, as so often, a pretext ; neither is it an ingredient, nor a means to render e.g. force or frailty, gift or truth, attraction or despair, nor the expression thereof. [Nudity] is not linked to some moment of an act, nor to some quest of symbolism, aestheticism or realism. This nudity, ultimately, is devoid of any sign-ification, of what common sense understands by it. It is the essence of a performance that is not at all narrative and not at all intended to be purely visual, a performance which is essentially abstract. Movement and gesture are refined in a natural way, precious ; they do not belong to some contemporary vocabulary, poor and average, convention is alien to them. One descries no repetition, no commonplace, nothing that is standard. The contemplator –elevated—is bathed in a sometimes tangible, sometimes immaterial humanity, sensible and pure, in a beauty that is sublime. Art’s effect has replaced the senses’ impact. The bet is won.
This is a kind of spectacle, so original, creative, elegiac, multidisciplinary, so wholly different of contemporary dance and of the complete theatre history of the past centuries that another word than ‘dance’ should be invented to describe this performance, unless ‘dance’ comprises every truly living spectacle’. 21
1 Francine HANLEY, The dynamic body image and the moving body: Revisiting Schilder’s theory for psychological research, in SCAN: Journal of Media Arts Culture (Macquarie University Sidney) http://www.scan.net.au/scan/journal/journal_about.php; EAD., The Dynamic Body Image and the Moving Body: A Theoretical and Empirical Investigation, unpublished doctoral thesis, Melbourne, Victoria University, 2004.
2 Henri WALLON, Kinesthesia and the visual body image in the child, in The World of Henri Wallon, ed. G. VOYAT, New York, Jason Aronson, 1984, pp. 115-131. Wallon, however, attaches too much importance to the visual in the constitution of the body image.
3 Wim VAN BINSBERGEN, Spiritualiteit, heelmaking en transcendentie, Haarlem, Shikanda Press, 2015.
4 See The Body in Parts: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe, ed. David HILLMAN & Carla MAZZIO, New York and London, Routledge, 1997.
5 In 2004 Pé Vermeersch started to express this energetics of the body through other techniques. The taught handling of line, black on white, is now also translated into pictorial materials: sometimes white on white, sometimes white in combination with a minimal pallette. This shift makes it possible to evoke other dimensions of the dancing body and its self-experience, perhaps charged with different affect.It consists of very light paintings, often tone in tone, in oil on paper. These grew thematically from the Blondes drawings, but developed towards evoking new dimensions. A number of these works are literally transparent.
6 K. DE OREO & H.G. WILLIAMS, Characteristics of kinesthetic perception, in A Textbook of Motor Development, ed. C.B. CORBIN, Iowa, Wm. Brown, 1980, pp. 174-196.
7 M. SOLMS & O. TURNBULL, The Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the Neuroscience of Subjective Experience, London, Karnac, 2002.
8 MASSUMI 2002, p. 180.
9 Pé VERMEERSCH, Dood van een butohdansmarietje, in Etcetera, 19/76, 2001, pp. 11-18.
10 It was only in the 20th century that artists like Dalì came to see the body differently, for example as a melting lump, in ways comparable to butoh master Tatsumi Hijikata feeling himself to be a mollusc – ‘because nothing around me has clear contours’ – or dancers inspired by the spirit of butoh revising the favoured body concept.
11 ‘I cherish our own tradition, in which the human psyche undergirds many pieces of drama and dance, I love realism, … the necessary personality, but I also want to investigate this ‘self’ in other ways. For me this is precisely one reason why it is such a challenge to be a dancer or an actress, how can I frolick with myself, what sort of creature can I present to the public, how can I glide between subjectivity and objectivity, between realism and abstraction. Like an artist painting different self-portraits, some figurative, some abstract’. The polarities – likewise fundamental to her visual work – between figuration and abstraction, between recognition and the strange, in PV’s view provide an arc of tension along which the performer glides. One of PV’s early works (1995) was titled Glijdend (‘sliding’ or ‘gliding’), namely on the arc between familiarity, which lowers the threshold for the audience, and the abstractly unknown, which once accepted and processed is an opening to growth. This tension is an axis that Vermeersch has also used in other creations. In developing Blondes, song was sensed to be the emotionally accessible, dance as the much less accessible abstraction. Spectators were given points of recognition, providing them with an opening to go along with the abstraction, with the Other. The importance of this ‘arc’ is also apparent from PV’s image of the sometimes abstract, sometimes figurative (and anywhere on the spectrum between) ‘self-portraits’ that arise in her dance. This arc is also a formative principle in her plastic work.
12 Pal Dahlstedt.
13 For many artists the paradox in and before the realisation of the artwork is preceded by the daily installation of contradictory thoughts, actions, desires, and (towards others) a double bind. This relative impossibility to live with is drawn into/ filtered throughout the aesthetic action and in that ‘process of translation’ is purified into a fascinating paradox.
14 K. DE OREO & H.G. WILLIAMS, Characteristics of kinesthetic perception, in A Textbook of Motor Development, ed. C.B. CORBIN, Iowa, Wm. Brown, 1980, pp. 174-196.
15 Carlos GIL, Ciudad, paisaje y movimiento. Festival Internacional de Danza para paseantes en Pé de Pedra, in Artez, nr. 8, 2004, p. 60-61.
16 José HENRIQUEZ, Pies desnudos, ojos abiertos. IX ‘En pé de pedra’ en Compostela, in Primer Acto, summer 2004.
17 Désirée ORTEGA CERPA, Las rubias no tienen alma, in Diario de Cádiz, 06.11.2004, p.61.
18 Rosalía GOMEZ, La solidez de la danza urbana, in Diario de Sevilla, 02.11.2004, p. 42.
19 Pilar HERNANDEZ MATEO, Danza contemporánea en el teatro y en las calles de Cádiz, in Diario de Cádiz, 28.10.2004.
20 Angélica TANARRO, Tensión desnuda en un mundo asolado, in El Norte de Castilla, 01.02.2005.
21 Jean-Gabriel NANCEY, Effet d’art : nudité, enfin !, in Danse. European dance news (Paris), n° 270, 2012, p. 55.